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From Vol. 4, Issue 5, May 2022

Cultivating a cosmopolitan mindset


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“Stoic cosmopolitanism... helps us cultivate a feeling of belonging, wherever we are and whoever we are with.”

Let this verse be in your heart and in your mouth: “I am a human being, I regard nothing human as foreign to me” Let us hold things in common, as we are born for the common good. Our companionship is just like an arch, which would collapse without the stones' mutual support to hold it up. - Seneca, Letters on Ethics, 95.53

These days, the word cosmopolitan probably brings to mind something other than virtue – more like jet-setting travel, sophisticated soirées, or elegant alcoholic beverages.

Being a citizen of the whole world

But Stoic cosmopolitanism goes back to the original Greek root, cosmos. With a cosmopolitan mindset, you feel like a citizen of the whole world, not just one small corner of it. You understand that each human is intrinsically valuable as a human, and that no person is more valuable than any other. You realize that, although you naturally feel closer and more connected to your family, friends, and immediate community, your loved ones are not entitled to special privileges at the expense of other people.

Looking for points of connection

Cosmopolitanism has nothing to do with traveling the world and everything to do with feeling at home wherever you are in the world. Wherever you happen to end up on the planet – whether it is five miles from where you were born or on the other side of the globe – you care for and appreciate the people you are with. You don’t look down on anyone, even if you disagree with them. Instead, you find points of connection and understanding, remembering that you are subject to the same biases and partialities.

In the modern world, where alienation and anonymity are common, it’s easy to feel disjointed and disconnected from others. We may feel isolated and alone, like we are outsiders who don’t belong anywhere. Or we may cling tightly to our social identities, spending time exclusively with people in our in-group, reinforcing our own feelings of security, and assuring ourselves that we definitely belong.

Both of these are symptoms of the precariousness of belonging in 21st century Western society. One may lead us to feel worthless or lack confidence in ourselves, while the other leads us to overvalue our own social group and see others as worthless. Neither one is conducive to individual or societal flourishing.

A feeling of belonging wherever we are

Stoic cosmopolitanism, in contrast, helps us cultivate a feeling of belonging, wherever we are and whoever we are with. We are secure enough in ourselves – in our moral identity – that we do not need to cling desperately to the status and identity conferred by an in-group. We can openheartedly reach out to others, confidently offering them our recognition and care. We can approach other people with curiosity and kindness, feeling that we belong to them and they belong to us.

The ancient Stoic word oikeiosis describes this attitude of care, connection, and belonging to other people. It is exactly the opposite of alienation. We don’t have a good word for this in English today, but you can imagine what it’s like. Instead of feeling a remoteness or separation between yourself and others, you feel a close attachment and affiliation. You are on the same team, with the same goal of living a good human life.

What if others don’t reciprocate?

It may sound impossible to do this on your own – what if other people don’t reciprocate your feeling of close belonging? The Stoic secret is that it doesn’t matter! By developing this mindset in yourself, you enjoy all the benefits of experiencing love, connection, and belonging. You are cultivating your natural instinct to care for others, and you find your joy by fulfilling this inherent human capacity.

And as a side benefit, you will often find that when you develop a feeling of care and connection on your side, other people will reciprocate. As Marcus Aurelius points out, “kindness is invincible if it be sincere” (Meditations, 11.18). You might just find that by feeling connected on your end, you establish a true connection with another person.

Stoic cosmopolitanism: a powerful idea

The Stoic attitude of cosmopolitanism is powerful because it is both specific and generalizable. Sometimes it’s tempting to develop an abstract, humanitarian love for people on the other side of the world but to forget about applying it to the specific people in our lives. This is not real love at all, and it’s not going to help anyone very much. As you live your life, remember that true care and connection are directed toward specific other people – starting with those closest to you.

imageBrittany Polat, author of Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying Calm, Mindful, and Engaged, holds a Ph.D. in applied linguistics but currently researches and writes about Stoic psychology and philosophy. Brittany's latest project is Living in Agreement, where she applies her lifelong interest in human nature to the discourse and practice of inner excellence.